Remote Piloting is a Self-Driving Car Crutch

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By Dr. Lance B. Eliot, the AI Insider for AI Trends and a regular contributor

When my daughter was young, I used to take her to the playground and have her go on the swings that were there. Being the classic doting father, I would stand nearby as she went back-and-forth on the swing, wanting to be close enough to catch her if she somehow went astray. Though I tried to look nonchalant about it, she knew that I was hovering and trying to be there to rescue her. Like many youngsters, she was convinced that my rescuer status was unnecessary and in fact that it was inhibiting her from being personally responsible for her own well-being. I admit it was hard to inch away and know that she might get hurt if the swinging got out-of-hand, but it seemed like the prudent thing to do, especially if I wanted her to believe in herself and exercise her own autonomy. Besides, I couldn’t always be there at the ready and she would certainly be going on swings someday on her own.

This reminds me about the latest push toward remote piloting of self-driving cars. You might have heard that the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has been toying with producing a new set of regulations about true self-driving cars in California. Up until now, the regulations in California were aimed at self-driving cars that had a human back-up driver in the vehicle. A true self-driving car is considered a Level 5, meaning that there is no human driver needed since the car is able to do anything that a human driver would be able to do. The AI needs to be as proficient as a human driver. Cars at a less than Level 5 are ones that a human driver needs to be able to take over the driving of the car if needed. Thus, the AI for a less than Level 5 car does not have to be as robust and capable.

Allow me to repeat myself somewhat and emphasize again that a true self-driving car, a Level 5, by definition is a car that can be driven by automation in whatsoever manner that a human driver can. As such, there does not need to presumably be any provision to allow a human to drive the car. In fact, Google is famous for wanting to eliminate any controls within the car that would allow humans inside the car to try and take over the driving of the vehicle. This is the all-in gambit of the Level 5 car. No controls, no chance of human intervention. Nissan, on the other hand, takes a different approach. They might or might not have controls inside the car, but they are establishing a remote piloting capability to allow humans outside the car to pilot the car, when needed.

California’s new DMV draft regulations for true self-driving cars also offers the notion that the car should have a remote capability for humans to engage with the car. I’d like to closely examine this whole topic of remote access to self-driving cars, and take you on a journey about the tradeoffs in this emerging trend.

Let’s start at the beginning. There are three major modes involved in remote access to a self-driving car.

Remote monitoring. The simplest mode of remote access is remote monitoring of a self-driving car. In this case, the remote capability allows someone to know whether the car is turned on or not, or whether the car is moving or not, or whether the car has been involved possibly in a crash or not. You might already be familiar with this kind of feature since conventional cars now have this. You can press a button and speak with a human in a faraway remote center, and tell them you are out-of-gas and they’ll call for roadside assistance. Or, if you are lonely, I suppose you can just carry on a conversation with another human, with them sitting somewhere in say Nova Scotia, while you are stuck in your car and enduring the daily bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic.

Remote non-piloting control. In this second and more advanced mode, the remotely based human can actually take over some controls of the car, but only in a very limited way. They can for example remotely start the car. They can unlock or lock the doors of the car. Notice that these actions are not associated with the piloting of the car. A remote non-piloting mode is one that allows a remote human to do anything other than actually drive the car. Being able to take action of a non-pilot nature is relatively easy to technologically make happen, and also reduces the amount of skill needed by the remote operator. The remote operator is able to do what the remote monitoring does, and has the added benefit of being able to control non-driving aspects of the car. The range of non-piloting controls can vary quite a bit in terms of particular car models, some of which allow for more or less kinds of non-piloting controls capabilities.

Remote piloting. Finally, there is remote piloting, which is the third and most advanced mode of remote access. In this case, the remote operator can actually drive the car. They are able to turn the steering wheel, apply the brakes, use the accelerator, and overall operate the car. To be able to do so, the car is fitted with various sensor devices such as cameras and distance detectors. The remote operator sits in front of a console and drives the car. You’ve undoubtedly seen movies that show a remote drone operator piloting an semi-autonomous drone, often in battle scenes where they are viewing a suspect and then launch a missile to get the bad guy.

Now that I’ve laid out the three modes of remote access, we can take a look at the latest trends in self-driving cars and AI.

I’ve stated that a Level 5 self-driving car is one that can be operated by AI and do whatever a human can do. If that’s the case, would we need a remote piloting capability in a Level 5 car? One answer is no, we would not need a remote pilot since the AI is supposed to be able to fully pilot the car without any needed human intervention. Some argue that well, yes, that’s the definition of a Level 5 car, but wouldn’t you feel safer to know that a human was able to remotely pilot your car, just in case the AI went haywire or fell asleep at the wheel?

I would argue that I might actually feel less safe if a remote operator took over the controls of my car. Imagine someone that is getting paid minimum wage, and they are sitting in a remote location and driving my car, while I’m in it. Do they really have the needed driving skills? Are they licensed to drive in my particular state? Do they know the rules of the road in my area? Can they really see sufficiently via the camera all the facets needed to safely drive the car? Are they potentially going to be driving my car, while it is on the highway racing along at 65 mph, and maybe suddenly the remote operator reaches for their coffee mug and oops my car goes flying into a ditch?

You might argue that drones are being flown all the time remotely, by both highly trained operators and also by that teenage kid down the street that got one for his birthday. I get that. One little difference. There’s no human inside that drone! Of course, the drone can go awry and hit someone, but the point is that currently we aren’t allowing human-occupied drones to be piloted remotely publicly. We certainly have the needed technology to be able to remotely pilot cars, trucks, and even planes and ships that have people in them. But, we aren’t actively doing so. We still believe in the “human driver inside” aspect.

Nissan is borrowing from NASA (and working with NASA) on the remote piloting of Nissan’s self-driving cars. NASA is well known for their remote piloting of vehicles that we land onto other planets. The technology definitely exists. Is it perfected to the degree that we are all Okay with having humans inside the vehicles? That’s a big question. And keep in mind that the NASA technology is often millions of dollars of really good high-tech stuff. Car makers are not going to be able to afford having that kind of equipment on your everyday car.

One concern about this movement toward remote piloting is that we are perhaps once again coming back to the human in the equation of driving a car. The AI pursuit is that we are taking the human out of the equation. We want to have cars that drive on a self-driving basis. If we put the human back into the role of driving, this time remotely driving the car rather than driving while inside the car, aren’t we also saying that we really don’t need the AI to be able to be autonomous? Remember my daughter that wanted me to step away from the swing? If we put in place remote piloting, maybe it reduces our urgency and determination to make self-driving cars that are good enough to really be a Level 5. Remote piloting can be perceived as a crutch and lead to less funding and attention toward the Level 5. We won’t reach our desire for truly autonomous drivable cars and trucks if we become reliant on the human-based remote pilot.

Even if you argue that the remote pilot is secondary and that the AI will be the primary driver of the car, this still raises other issues. When will the AI handover control to the remote pilot? When the control is handed-over, will the remote pilot know what is happening? Can the remote pilot react quickly enough? Should the remote pilot be able to take over control from the AI? Under what circumstances? What kind of humans should be allowed to have this kind of life-or-death capabilities and decision making? Will there be regulation to ensure that the remote pilots of cars are properly skilled, trained, and have a

track record to proof their reliability? Will this create a security hole that then would allow for hackers to take over your car and drive you to a kidnap spot or worse still aim your car into a brick wall?

For Air Traffic Controllers (ATC’s), we require all sorts of stringent conditions on their skills and duties. Right now, the remote pilots for cars are basically whatever a car maker decides they need to be. Suppose we took the same attitude toward air traffic controllers. I don’t think any of us would feel safe going up in a plane. This whole topic of the remote pilot labor force is still in its infancy. Mark my words, if we continue along this path, we’ll someday maybe have as many remote human pilots of cars as we did when we had phone operators. I say this because suppose we have millions of cars on the road that are able to be piloted by a remote car operator. Think about how many human pilots you would need to staff for this job. You need to have enough of them to be able to instantly step into driving a car, of which any of those millions of cars on the road might need at any moment. A car that says to you, “we’re sorry but all operators are busy,” would not be very pleasant when your car is rounding a blind curve and the AI has handed the controls over to the remote center.

In short, this notion of a remote piloting capability sounds good at first glance, but it raises enormous questions about trust. Would you trust your life to a remote human that you don’t know and aren’t sure that they can pilot your car and that maybe they can’t see what your car sees? If the human remote operator suddenly has problems with the camera in your car, and it is all fogged up due to weather, what happens then. Some might also perceive this remote access as a Big Brother kind of aspect, whereby your privacy is being invaded by someone remote. For the remote monitoring, most people that have cars with this feature are not even aware of the possibilities of being remotely spied on. It can happen. For remote piloting, some like the idea because then the police can take over a car being driven dangerously by crazy criminal that is leading a harrowing car chase. Yes, that’s true, but the police could also possibly take over your car, even if you are completely innocent. It’s a dual-edged sword.

All in all, we need to be on our toes about the remote piloting trend. It does offer a potential safeguard for the advent of self-driving cars, but it is not a silver bullet. By the way, if you are an Uber or Lyft driver, you might want to start playing video games involving driving cars, because soon you might be trading-in your actual car to become a remote pilot for self-driving cars. Just think, no need to dress up anymore, and you can comfortably do your driving while in your pajamas at home. Maybe I should consider that as my next career move.